The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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By Susan Cooper
Nancy looked out at the huge shadow blotting out the golden light of sunset in the doorway, and felt cold with foreboding. What was it? She had to act without Joe, right this minute.
Beside her, the little robot was now waving her arms up and down, beeping urgently. Nancy caught one of the arms, and into its hand she put the glowing red robotic heart that she had rescued from Boppo’s pocket. Roberta’s beeps became a wild medley of joyful chirps, and she opened a little square door in her shiny metal chest and popped the heart inside.
Then she began to purr. It was a sound rather like an electric fan.
But from outside the gingerbread house, Nancy could hear a deeper purring, more like a diesel motor, accompanied by a kind of muted clapping. She stood stock still. Was it possible? These had been the happiest sounds of her life ever since she was a baby. She began to smile, feeling her own heart pounding with excitement. She ran through the door and looked upward, beaming.
“Oh Hathi!” she said joyfully. “It’s you! It’s really you!”
And there stood the twins’ beloved foster mother from the Sick and Tired Circus, all seven thousand pounds of her. It was Hathi the elephant, rumbling and flapping her ears with pleasure as she nosed at Joe’s sleeping form with the tip of her trunk. The trunk rose into the air and descended gently on Nancy’s face in a happy greeting; it was like being kissed by the hose of a vacuum cleaner.
Nancy cried tears of mingled joy and guilt and relief. After that life-changing moment at the Elephant Clown Party, when they had been forced to leave without a word of farewell, she had despaired of ever seeing Hathi again.
“I’m so glad to see you!” she wept. “We just had to go – it was when he gave us the card–”
“Never mind,” said Hathi. “Your secret circus support system kept me informed.” She raised her trunk again, dipped it into a sturdy box strapped to her back, and presented Nancy with a large, perfectly ripe banana.
“You look hungry, my darling,” she said.
“Oh thank you!” Nancy’s tears gave way to famished gratitude.
Joe stirred, and opened his eyes.
“Hathi!” he cried, and he leapt to his feet. Love can work wonders; it beats drugged gingerbread every time.
Nancy stroked Hathi’s trunk. “You came after us!” she said through a mouthful of banana.
“Well, I knew that witless pig would screw things up,” said Hathi, with a withering glance at the sleeping Genius Kelly. “He’s so full of himself! All these contradictory stories – you need support, not a firework display. I know just where you should go next, on this perilous journey. And I’ve arrived only just in time – I smell danger!”
Her long trunk swung to and fro, and paused at the doorway of the gingerbread house. “I smell BOPPO!” said Hathi in a terrible voice.
“Is he in there?” said Joe sleepily to Nancy.
Nancy glared at him. “If you hadn’t been gobbling up his gingerbread you’d know that! Let’s get out of here!” Then she froze. “But we need Roberta!”
She dashed into the house, with Joe stumbling after her. The tip of Hathi’s trunk hovered in the doorway.
There was the little robot, armed but legless, still purring – but she had her arms round the sleeping Boppo.
Joe tugged at her. “Roberta! Come quick!”
Roberta clung more tightly. She purred more loudly.
“She has feelings now,” Nancy said. “She has a heart! I emptied Boppo’s pockets and there it was.”
“So she’s fallen in love with Boppo?” said Joe. “Where’s her common sense?” He sighed, and shook his head. “I wish you’d found her brain instead.”
“Hmm,” said Nancy. “I wonder–”
She turned to look at the contents of Boppo’s pockets, still scattered over the floor. Hathi’s trunk was already there, sensitive, groping. It picked up one of the red rubber noses and held it out to Nancy.
Roberta stopped purring, and let go of Boppo.
Nancy took the nose and shook it over her palm. Out fell a tiny piece of green metal patterned with a maze of gleaming lines. Roberta uttered some rapid, urgent chirps and waved her arms.
“It looks very electronic,” said Nancy. “It must be her brain!” She dropped it into Roberta’s hand.
Joe said, “But we haven’t found her head yet!”
Roberta opened the small square door in her chest and slid her brain into a waiting slot, to join her heart. She said, in a beautifully modulated Oxford English accent, “It is deeply anthropomorphic to assume that a robot must necessarily require a head.”
On the floor, Boppo stirred.
Everyone held their breath.
Boppo licked his very, very red lips. “More meatballs!” he said sleepily.
Roberta’s little robotic arms moved like lightning. They broke off a piece of the gingerbread windowsill, crumbled it, and popped the morsels rapidly one by one into Boppo’s mouth. He chewed contentedly. “Mmmm,” he said.
It was several seconds before his taste buds told him he wasn’t eating meatballs, and his eyes flickered in alarm – but it was too late. He was fast asleep again.
“Hoist with his own petard,” said Roberta with satisfaction.
Joe said, “Is she going to talk like this all the time?”
“Out!” said Nancy. She paused, added politely, “Excuse me, Roberta,” and thrust the little robot into Hathi’s curling trunk, following it outside.
“A pleasure to meet you, proud pachyderm,” said Roberta’s diminishing voice as she was swung high into the air, “and if I could trouble you to divert a little leftward – a little more – yes!”
They saw her eager mechanical arms clutch the chimney-leg – and then saw it crumble. It wasn’t a robotic leg after all; it was just gingerbread, pretending.
“Rats!” said Roberta, and disappeared, as Hathi’s trunk swung her over to the howdah (a fancy name for the box, which was indeed pretty fancy) on her back. Then the trunk came down again, tip curved, and with the skill of lifelong practice Nancy and Joe stepped aboard. They rose through the air just as they had at the circus: feet standing on the tip of Hathi’s trunk, hands against the trunk itself, for balance. It was their favorite form of travel in the world, ending with a small acrobatic leap into the howdah.
The instant they were safely on her back, the great grey elephant went striding away through the trees. And Nancy, Joe, and Roberta found that they were not alone.
“There’s a whole hand of bananas under your seat,” said a voice. “Hathi always had a strong maternal instinct, even if they did give her a male name.”
Sitting on one of the padded, velvet-covered seats, next to Roberta, was an old lady in a black cloak, with frizzy white hair escaping round her hood like an ermine trim. It was Sybil Hunch, eating a banana.
“We’re so glad to see you, Miss Hunch,” said Nancy, wondering whether this was true. She felt they had had enough misfortunes already without having more predicted.
“When an old friend calls, I come,” said Sybil Hunch. “Hathi and I go back a ways – I was a member of your circus once. Long before your time. But the public isn’t very partial to misfortune-tellers.”
Joe reached for the bananas; even after the gingerbread he was still hungry. The howdah was swaying vigorously now as Hathi loped through the forest. The sun had set, and in the dying light they could see Sybil Hunch’s crystal ball in her lap, gleaming faintly.
“We love Hathi,” Joe said, chewing. “She raised us, more than anyone else in the circus.”
“She’s our mother,” Nancy said simply. “Or she was, until the ringmaster gave us that card from our real parents. At seven o’clock on our eleventh birthday, the way they’d told him to. And we had to run for that terrible train.”
“Right in the middle of our birthday party,” Joe said. “The elephants and the clowns gave us a party every year – a competition, to see which of them could make us laugh the hardest. They’d only just begun.” He sniffed mournfully.
Nancy said, “We’re doing what the card told us, we’re hunting for every piece of the Exquisite Corpse – that’s Roberta – so we can rescue our parents. But it gets harder all the time!”
“Well now,” said Sybil Hunch. “Let’s see if the past can throw any light on the future.” She tossed her banana peel overboard and gave her crystal ball a quick rub with the edge of her cloak.
“Memory Search,” she said crisply to the ball. “Sloppy Twins, background of.”
They peered over her shoulder as the ball filled with whirling mist, and they saw a flurry of images. First they saw their youthful father completing Roberta, his dimension-doorway-finder; then the evil, irascible, destructifying creatures snarling at their parents on the other side of a door. The mist swirled, and they saw the Sloppies fleeing back as the door swung closed. At the very last moment, one of the creatures dived out after them: a formless monster, pursued by a bright dancing light. Then they saw Roberta’s metal hand turn a key in the door’s lock.
“What’s that light?” said Joe, peering.
“Beneficence, I’d guess,” said Sybil Hunch. “Hush. Watch.”
“Joe!” whispered Nancy. “Have you still got that key?”
Joe nodded, and Sybil Hunch said “Hush!”
They saw Alistair Sloppy handing his small adorable babies to the circus ringmaster, together with a sealed envelope. The ringmaster was nodding his head seriously. An elephant was dimly visible in the background. Panning to another part of the circus, the crystal ball showed them the monster morphing into the body of Boppo the Clown.
Joe hissed. So did Roberta.
“HUSH!” said Nancy and Sybil Hunch together.
The twins saw their parents desperately zipping in and out of time and place, hiding bits of Roberta as they went, so that nobody would be able to seize the little robot and open the dimension door. The bright light danced with them everywhere, like Tinkerbelle. Soon Roberta was only a torso and two running legs.
Mist swirled again in the crystal ball and they saw two chubby toddlers playing with a cute black piglet, while an elephant’s trunk hovered protectively overhead. Into the picture whirled the time-travelling Sloppy parents and the dancing light. They saw the toddlers look up, open-mouthed. The light morphed into the piglet, which at once hopped onto its hind feet and began to dance.
For a heart-stopping moment Nancy and Joe saw their fleeting mother reach yearningly toward their toddler selves. Then the ball went dark.
“I remember that!” Joe cried. “I remember seeing her, just for a minute! Then she was gone!”
“I don’t,” said Nancy enviously. She looked at the robot, sitting quietly beside Sybil Hunch. “Roberta – do you remember where they went to hide your legs?”
“Of course not,” said Roberta. “By that time your talented but improvident father had hidden my brain somewhere else.” She added, reflectively, “The legs can run through time, but only the whole can breach dimensions and turn the key.”
“I do remember the piglet,” Nancy said. “He grew up to be Genius Kelly, of course.”
“Yes, he made a good choice, this Axan fellow,” Sybil Hunch said. “That pig is a Berkshire, a breed that can live for twenty years – so he knew it would still be around for your eleventh birthday. When you’ve found your parents, you’ll all have to get him back to his own dimension before the pig dies.”
“He’s really a good guy and we’ve deserted him!” Joe said in alarm. “Hathi just left him behind with Boppo!”
Sybil Hunch tucked her crystal ball under her cloak. “Your beneficent friend Genius-Axan isn’t the brightest light in the circuit, but I think he can handle Boppo for a while. Right now your foster mother is in charge, bless her big ears.”
The steady lurching rhythm of the howdah began to slow down. Hathi called over her shoulder, “Get ready! We’re here!” She lifted her head and trumpeted into the night, like the first chords of the Eroica.
Ahead, they saw a blaze of light.
Nancy peered anxiously. “What’s that?”
“I have no idea,” said Sybil Hunch. “Which is a very good sign.”
Audio recordings provided by National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and the Butler Center for Children's Literature at Dominican University have developed a companion educational resource center (external link) to support “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.”